Tag Archives: literature reviews

Research questions for stand-alone literature reviews


questioning by JoshuaDavisPhotography, Attribution-ShareAlike Licence

A stand alone literature review has a different purpose to a literature review that is part of a research study. When a literature review is part of a research study its purpose is to justify the research question that the study addresses. It needs to show readers what is already known, where the gap being addressed by the study is, and why the gap is important to fill.

In contrast, the purpose of a stand alone literature review is to answer a question itself, based on analysis, evaluation, and synthesis of published literature. The question may be a general one like “what is currently known about..…” or “what does current evidence suggest is the best strategy for…..” but it can also be a more specific one such as “what factors are associated with the development of…..” or “which therapy for (condition) has the best long term prognosis…”. The question being answered needs to be an important one to answer and you will need to explain to readers why it is important in the introduction to the literature review.

When planning your literature review, you may start with a general topic, but its important to work on defining a research question early on. In order to define your question you will need to do a lot of reading, and also perhaps create summaries of what you have read, but you will not really have started your review until you know what the question is that your review will answer. The research question provides the focus for your review by defining the topic more specifically and ensuring it is feasible. For more information about formulating a research question, see this post from Sheffield Hallam University.

Reading to find out


Little Mongrel by Nitin G, Attribution License

In this post Thesis Whisperer Inger Mewburn describes a technique to help you deal with the huge mass of information on your topic. She refers to it as “reading like a mongrel” and a key aspect of this is reading to find things out, rather than just generally reading around your topic.

I know what she means. Once you know what you need to find out, your reading (and writing) can proceed much much more quickly and until you reach that point – well to me it feels like swimming in mud (as I described here).

So sometimes when you are swimming in mud, you need to step back and try to think what you are actually trying to find out. Break it up into small questions (as I have suggested here) or topics. Talking to someone usually helps. Anyone will do….they don’t have to understand the topic. Try explaining to them what it is you are trying to write about and often this will clarify what you need to find out.


An automatic Endnote group you might not have known about.

A really nice feature of Endnote that you might not have noticed is that it provides an automatic group of the references you have cited in a document.. The group is labelled with the document name and the group appears at the top of the left hand pane.


To make the group appear, you need to update the library in the document on the Endnote ribbon using the Update Citations and Bibliography button.


Using this group is a really easy way to look at the references you are citing, and open the pdfs from it.

It’s also perfect for going through the references you have actually used in a document and fixing up formatting issues so that they are correct in your reference list. Instead of searching for and finding each one separately you can just advance through the list in Endnote.

I also use this feature to collect groups of references when I am drafting documents. I find it easier that forming Endnote groups because I can include more information about the reference within the word document. For example, I can list the search terms I used to find these references or information on which ones I still need to read, or get hold of. I can make notes about each reference in the word document as I look at it.


Every time I open the document, Endnote lists the group of references in it for me, labelled with the name of the document. And not just one document. Endnote forms a group for all the documents you have open. Really helpful! Just remember that you might have to Update Citations and Bibliography to see each one.

Using a matrix for analysing literature


“matrix” pose by Stefano Mortellaro Attribution-NonCommercial License

A literature review is not just a summary of the literature. Instead it is a synthesis that draws together the literature in a new way, often to answer a question. It needs an organising structure that threads through it and one of the tools that may help you find this organising structure is a matrix.

These two articles provide brief introduction to matrices for literature reviewing.

Sally Jensen (2013) A Synthesis Matrix as a Tool for Analyzing and Synthesizing Prior Research, Academic Coaching & Writing Dissertation Doctor Blog, https://www.academiccoachingandwriting.org/dissertation-doctor/dissertation-doctor-blog/iii-a-synthesis-matrix-as-a-tool-for-analyzing-and-synthesizing-prior-resea

Laura Ingram, James Hussey, Michelle Tigani, and Mary Hemmelgarn (2006) Writing A Literature Review and Using a Synthesis Matrix, NC State University Writing and Speaking Tutorial Service

Writing for Publication in Veterinary Medicine


Writing for Publication in Veterinary Medicine, a practical guide for a practical guide for researchers and clinicians is written by two very experienced authors and editors, Mary Christopher and Karen Young. It is a concise read with fantastic advice about the whole writing and publication process. Whether you intend your work to be published or not, you should be aiming to write in a publishable style, so this guide is for you!

Mary Christopher and Karen Young (2011) Writing for Publication in Veterinary Medicine, a practical guide for a practical guide for researchers and clinicians, Wiley Blackwell, http://au.wiley.com/WileyCDA/Section/id-612222.html

Writing as you read

Browne, Henriette - A Girl Writing; The Pet Goldfinch - Google Art Project

By Browne, Henriette (1829 – 1901) (painter (artist), Details of artist on Google Art Project) [Public domain or Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons

In this post JediPhD encourages you to actively start forming up sections of your literature review as you read. Two things I would add. Firstly, make sure you use Endnote to load the citation at the same time. Secondly, make sure you have some sort of system for differentiating direct quotes from the reference (which you will need to reform into your own words later) and writing that is your own words already.


Learning from the literature

reading in the sunbeam

reading in the sunbeam by Malingering Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License

As you read the literature, you will start to become familiar with more than just the research findings. You will also be learning who is who in the research world you are reading about. You will learn new terminology and how it is used, and the conventions of academic style. You can let this wash over you and hope you gradually absorb it, or you can actively look out for it and note it for using later. Start a collection of bits and pieces in your research journal. Things to watch out for include:

  • New terminology – which can also make useful keywords for searches
  • References to other publications and researchers you can follow up on
  • Ways of framing research questions
  • Ways of justifying the research
  • Ways of describing research methods
  • Ways of describing results
  • Ways of presenting data
  • Ways of presenting conclusions
  • Ways of identifying issues and problems with the study